Interview with Israeli Novelist A.B. Yehoshua1on his New Novel, The Retrospective [Hesed Sefaradi]
Interviewed by Judith Roumani
Reprint. Originally printed in Volume 1, Issue 2.
I was very intrigued to read the excerpt from your new novel Hesed Sefaradi.2 Ever since the brilliant Mr. Mani I have thought of your work as embodying a Sephardic world view, and other people also think this, I know. There is an article coming out by Bernard Horn about Sephardism in your work and I'm sure you know what that means3...
Yes, yes, now there is a whole book of essays on my work that will come in two weeks, the whole book with forty-one essays by different scholars from the Israeli milieu, and from other places, such as the United States, and they will analyze different novels of mine and different aspects of my writing. But, as I say, if you're speaking specifically of the Sephardic aspect I was interested, in my way, in the possibility of the Sephardic understanding coming from here, in the Middle East, to bring about some changes in the Jewish identity. [I was not interested] in the general, I would say, story about the Sephardim who were coming [to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s] what they did not get, what they deserved, that they were discriminated against, this is not the case [I was making]at all. My figures, my characters, are strong Sephardim. All are set in their confidence, [and through them] it is possible to see Israeli society and Israeli reality in a different way. They are coming from the minority. Yes, we have to know that on the eve of the Second World War, 93 per cent of the Jews were Ashkenazi and only 7 per cent were Sephardic but of course after the annihilation...
500 years ago 80 per cent of world Jewry was Sephardic and only 20 per cent, I think, Ashkenazi.
Yes and now it has been reversed from the first millennium to the third, to this millennium, but then in this country [Israel] we are 50 per cent because a large proportion of the Jewish Ashkenazim were annihilated in the Shoah and some of them, part of them [the Ashkenazim who were survivors], didn't come here, while the majority of the Sephardic community were coming to Israel so we are here 50/50. But I am describing characters [in my novels] based on what is my own feeling, because I did not come from discrimination, from people who were from the poverty-afflicted classes of the Sephardim. So I see the Sephardic Jew, in Mr. Maniespecially, as someone who wants to encounter Sephardic Jewish identity in Israeli society in a different way. This is my position, you will see also, with the new novel. The new novel is describing a director of cinema who is coming to a retrospective showing in Santiago de Compostela; in his early years, in his early work , he has had a collaboration with one of his pupils who was a Trigano, a person who came from North Africa...
I wanted to ask you about that, it reminds me very much of the name Shmuel Trigano.4 You have Saul Trigano as a character in your new novel.
Is this a joke? Or...
No, the name Trigano is common today. Trigano is a name found in Algeria, of Jews from Algeria, so it is not unusual.
So it's just a coincidence. A script writer…
He was brilliant, he was a script writer, and after some films they had done, experimental, allegorical, avant-garde kind of films, they had a quarrel between them and the film director is coming now to Santiago de Compostelaand they are organizing a retrospective showing of his early films. He's amazed, he's coming with an actress who was the girlfriend of this Trigano and what is happening in this novel, is his reconciliation with this Trigano. I wanted very much to show what was the message, what was the intention, what was the vision of this script writer who had come as a new oleh to Israel in the 1950s, what was his view of Israeli society and what he wanted to change in it or how he wants to challenge Israeli society. This is more or less the story of Hesed sefaradi.
Well, don't tell us too much or you'll spoil the novel for us! If I could just get back to your own background and your father who, I know, was also a writer and he wrote about Sephardic subjects.
Yes, he was not a fiction writer, but he was an Orientalist by profession. But then towards the end of his life he was writing about the Jewish Sephardic community at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and he was reviving the life of the Sephardic community with its relationship to the Ashkenazim, to the Arabs, and to all the things in the old city of Jerusalem. This was very important raw material for Mr. Mani afterwards. I wrote Mr. Mani after he died and at the time I used this material to give me raw material for the novel.
So he would have been proud of you...
He would have been happy because he would see that what he was writing wasn't going [to be forgotten], it wasn't just a wasted thing, but it was basic material for my work and I could continue in that way with what he was doing.
And then I wanted to ask you about--this sounds like very traditional literary criticism--people always talk about Faulkner and Joyce as influences on your writing, but I'm wondering if, since you lived in France for quite a few years, whether you would relate to any French writers as inspiration?
No, no, I wasn't related to literary circles and things like that, I was reading. If I was inspired, I can say I was impressed by three major writers: First, Agnon. But Agnon is a great writer who influenced many Israeli writers, different Israeli writers each of them has taken some component from him, like Appelfeld, like Amos Oz, like others, I could speak about seven or ten different writers from my generation and even the present generation who have been influenced by him. He was like our great pastor, almost like Flaubert. But then I also very much liked Faulkner. Faulkner was a great, in my opinion, the greatest writer of the 20th century, and I have learned a lot from him and the way he was handling together mythology, history, dramatic scenes and, o.k., I don't have to tell you who Faulkner is. When I met his works, I was thinking that he was giving me a key. For example, for Mr. Mani, he gave me the key. It is not an Agnonic book but it is Faulknerian.
And, I don't know whether people have speculated about why you only give us one side of the conversation in Mr. Mani's dialogues...
I was thinking I have done it in a certain way after A Late Divorce : there is one chapter that is written like this, in A Late Divorce. And I saw it works. Now the idea I wanted to continue was the interior monologue as it was in A Late Divorce or it was in The Lover. The dialogue was a little bit, I felt, the dialogue was not even, meaning that there is one side that is telling the story and the other is only, you know, returning balls like in a pingpong game, and I was thinking that by erasing the one side I give the reader a better possibility to imagine, to work out what the other was saying. In this sense, as it was done in an experimental chapter in A Late Divorce, I saw it works very well, and the reader is participating...
The reader has to make an effort of the imagination?
And then he invests in the book.
Right, the reader is active, not just passive.
And I saw that when it was on stage [Mr. Mani was turned into a stage version] [and] someone, the actor, was asking me to give what the others were saying, I saw that immediately it was reducing the effect of the text.
So I wanted to ask you about the idea of reversing the terms for Europeans in your book, A Journey to the End of the Millennium. The civilization is in the South, in Morocco and Andalusia, and the countries of the North are wallowing in mud, uncivilized, Vikings, and you're turning things upside down and you are showing us that the Sephardim were actually the civilized, rational side of the Jewish community.
Yes it was true, there is no question. Europe was in a very, I would say, miserable situation at this time. The power of the East and especially of the Islamic world was great. I especially wanted to show the Islam that is now despised very much: this is not justified, because Islam has its power, has its creation, has its poetry, has many, many things. But, in my opinion, Islam failed to continue its renaissance and its power because of its attitude to women. The problem of women has failed Islam, bringing it down to failure.
And still today...
So this is the reason why I posited the encounter between South and North, to show that even though the North was less civilized, less creative from the cultural point of view, still, due to its sense of morals, to its sense of regarding the woman as equal, [people in the North] had an advantage over the rich, civilized Southern world or the Islamic world.
Right, so about the new novel, the ‘Sephardi' in the title...
I don't want to speak too much about the new novel: I think it is too early because you don't have the new novel available to read.
Right, I know, it's not good to talk about something I haven't even read yet.
I was giving the broad outlines of the novel. It is about creation, about the forces of creation. As I said, I am a writer, as a writer I am a script writer, director, photographer, actor. I am doing all the functions within myself as a writer so I wanted to split this function into different artists. This is done in cinema. In cinema there is a script writer, there is a director, there is an actor, so I tried to examine the interplay, or the encounters, or the confrontations, between the forces, between the four forces of creation by demonstrating through the cinema.
Very interesting. I just wanted to tell you something, a thought that came to me when I read the title. ‘Spanish' and ‘kindness', or ‘grace' don't normally go together especially in the Jewish world because of the Expulsion from Spain, because of the Inquisition and so forth. Sephardim think of Spain in opposite terms. There was the supposed ‘herem' on Spain according to which Jews were not ever allowed to return and which probably didn't actually exist, but there was an attitude, especially bolstered by the opera Carmen: the attitude to the Spanish woman as treacherous and unfaithful, and this I've seen reflected in North African novels by Albert Memmi, who, I think, you probably know and Elissa Rhaïs, who was writing popular novels in the 1920s and 30s, and she wrote a novel about a Spanish woman who reflected this stereotype of treacherousness and unkindness, so it's very interesting to me that you are bringing us something totally opposite.
Yes, and especially the fact that I put it in the past. This is coming from my Moroccan origin (my mother comes from North Africa) so I wanted to show also the question of what we call today the conflict between civilizations. I wanted to contribute something to all these discussions of conflict among civilizations by demonstrating, let's say, the roots or some aspect of this confrontation that was started already a thousand years ago. And especially because I feel that I don't like the conflict between civilizations because we [the Israelis] are not Western, we are Western and Eastern at the same time. I don't make a war against Islam, it's not my business to make a war against Islam, I have to live with Islam. I have to make a modus vivendi with Islam, because otherwise we will be exterminated totally. We are not only Western, and this is what I wanted to show by demonstrating the power of the East, of the South in this problem.
Israel could ideally be a bridge between civilizations.... I actually think we have covered most of my questions, sort of in reverse order, but I wanted to thank you very much and toda raba.
1. A. B. Yehoshua is an Israeli novelist. He grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem, his father being from a Jerusalem Sephardic family dating back many generations, and his mother being from Morocco. Several of his novels, especially Mr. Mani (1990; later turned into a stage play) and Journey to the End of the Millennium (1999; later turned into an opera) reflect an interest in Sephardic culture. He lives in Haifa where he teaches literature at the university, but is frequently to be found in Tel Aviv, visiting his grandchildren. On this particular day, he had come from speaking to his grandchild's kindergarten class, in which all the children told him that they wanted to become writers too.
2. A prepublication excerpt in English translation was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Sept 8, 2010, p. B10, entitled “The Picture: An Excerpt from the new novel Hesed Sefaradi (Spanish Kindness), forthcoming in Hebrew from Hasifria Hahadasha,” translated by Stuart Schoffman. Schoffman's full translation entitled The Retrospective (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) appeared on March 5, 2013.
3. The article is entitled “Beyond Sephardic Identity: The Novels of A. B. Yehoshua,” and is a chapter in a collection ,Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and Modern Literary Imagination, ed. Yael Halevi-Wise, with Stanford University Press, 2012.
4. Shmuel Trigano is a well-known Sephardic philosopher and writer living in France.
5. This interview was conducted in Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv, on Friday morning October 15, 2010, in a busy and crowded café. It has been transcribed by Elisa Septimus.